Technical Inadvisory: Dungeons and Ender Dragons

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Minecraft Dungeons is a hack-and-slashing, treasure-looting, dungeon-crawling spin-off game in the Minecraft franchise. It’s basically a casual Diablo-like with blocky aesthetics, and it’s perfect for younger gamers and/or gamers who just want a fairly chill experience smashing zombies.

Available for PC, Xbox, PS4, and Nintendo Switch (which I played). 3.5 out of 5 stars, and it’s a fine game for its £16.74 (RM88) price tag, but an even better game if you and some friends can snag it on a sale to enjoy the multiplayer.

The end.

…right, those paragraphs are all that remains of the three drafts of my original Minecraft Dungeons review. I really wanted to write a “proper”, full review, but after completing the story on Normal and having some time to mull over it, I realised there isn’t really much to be said about the game overall… but there is one very interesting game design decision that Minecraft does that’s worth talking about.

First things first, though: I have to admit my feelings about the game kept changing as I played, which kinda explains the multiple drafts.

In the first few dungeons of the game, I was pretty underwhelmed by how simple the gameplay was. Move your character with the left control stick (on the Nintendo Switch), and press A to slash at mindless zombie hordes. I practically fell asleep as I went through the motions of the game’s very generic save-the-world storyline. Boring!

I was about to give up, but then the mid-game dungeons ramped things up with higher difficulty levels, and things got so interesting I had to revise my opinion (and review). Spiders for example, who had hitherto only been a mild annoyance because they shot webs that rooted me in place, suddenly became A-rank threats when they had suicidally explosive creepers as buddies.

(You can, of course, imagine my panic when I realised Minecraft creepers were spawning at higher difficulties, as they announced their presence with their nightmarishly familiar s-ss-sss-sssss-BOOOOM!)

Instead of mindlessly slashing at zombies, I now had to cleverly utilise the random assortment of tools I had to solve problems. Firework arrows helped clear distant clusters of spiders, while speed-boosting boots helped me avoid getting s-ss-sss-ssssslaughtered by creepers. Fun! Stressful, but fun!

At this point I was rewriting my review with a more positive light, and I started to appreciate the depth of the game and – more importantly – I started to fully realise the impact of the equipment design, from the Enchantment system (you customise your weapons and armours by selecting from a random pool of upgrades) to the Artifacts (basically, they’re your “magic spells”).

See, here’s the thing: the equipment (weapons, armour, Artifacts/spells) and upgrades you get are random.

Okay, okay, so anyone who’s played any Diablo-like is probably screaming, “well of course, Captain Obvious! Random loot is the whole point of these hack-and-slash dungeon crawlers!”, but hear me out. In Minecraft Dungeons, there are no character classes – who you are, how powerful you are, and what you can do is determined entirely by the stuff you wield. And what you wield is pretty much up to chance.

In most other hack-and-slash Diablo-likes (and many other games with an RPG bent), you choose a character class that determines how you’ll play the game. You want to be a magical glass cannon in Diablo 3, pick a Wizard. You want to be a slow and tanky steampunk knight in Torchlight 2, pick an Engineer. You make a choice at the start of the game and stick with it all the way to the end.

Minecraft Dungeons, on the other hand, runs up to you with a random assortment of knick-knacks every hour, throws them at you without much explanation, and screams “good luck!” as it runs away while a mob of creepers comes barrelling towards you. And you know what? It’s really fun!

Did you find some wizard robes? Cool! That reduces the cooldown of your Artifacts/spells, so if you can find fast-acting Artifacts and Enchantments that give you bonuses every time you cast a spell, you can create a tricksy spellslinger who blasts zombies from afar.

Wait, did you get comfortable with your spellcaster build? Whoops, here’s a new melee weapon with a higher power level than what you’re wielding, which will be useful for the next difficulty level – maybe try playing a berserker now!

Minecraft Dungeon’s equipment system encourages you to adapt and try new things, and in a way it combines the best aspects of roguelike game design (i.e. randomness encouraging players to be flexible with the hand they’re dealt) and classic loot-based RPGs (i.e. there’s always a sense of progression and growth).

You might think not being to play the way you want might get annoying, but nope. You can, with a bit of time grinding through specific dungeons, farm for equipment for your favourite playstyle. It’s just that Minecraft Dungeons is really, really good at tempting you with trying out new options by always giving you new, more powerful items.

Unfortunately, all that said, the praise I had for Minecraft Dungeons faltered as I went into the last few dungeons. Despite being great at encouraging players to play in different ways throughout the mid-game, the gameplay balance gets wonky towards the end – so you guessed it, I had to change my opinion, and review, once again.

Inflicting and surviving ranged attacks becomes such a dominant end-game strategy, it’s absurd. The only legit weapon to wield against the dense end-game mobs is a rapid-fire wide-shot crossbow, and any piece of armour without the arrow-deflecting upgrade is just a fancy suit you’re wearing to your funeral. The variety of gameplay styles suddenly disappeared, like a fancy cobblestone mansion that’s visited by a surprise creeper.

So yeah, my feelings on Minecraft Dungeons was a bit of a roller coaster ride – from boredom at its slow start, to an excited peak when I discovered I’m changing “character classes” every few dungeons, to mild disappointment when it boiled down to a game of pew pew arrows at the end.

But you know what? That’s perfectly fine, because I still enjoyed the ride. Minecraft Dungeons is generally an okay to above-average game, but it has one simple yet interesting bit of game design that impressed me. Making me change the way I play every few dungeons as a matter-of-fact side effect of wanting to be more powerful, that’s a small bit of design genius.

Making me change my mind so many times I had to rewrite this article thrice, though, that just s-ss-sss-sssssucks.

(Raised by wild Nintendo consoles and trained in the ways of the computer scientist, Shaun A. Noordin tries to use his knowledge of web development, technology and video games for the greater good. Or for entertainment and amusement, whichever is easier. He has a lot of advice to share, but they’re all inadvisable to follow.)